Today’s news that all the Labour councils in London are to freeze council tax next year (I say all, they only have eight) came as something of a shock.

First of all, I don’t think London Labour have a particularly good track record of keeping council tax low. If you take the inner London Labour boroughs at band D they charge an average of £1,276. Conservative authorities charge an average of just £899. And those bald figures hide other facts. The most expensive Conservative borough, Hammersmith and Fulham has only been Conservative controlled since 2006, and in each year since then has actually reduced the council tax. And I would hope I don’t need to point out that Wandsworth has the lowest council tax in the country.

But what really gets me is that all eight find themselves in a position to declare no increase, when a year ago almost to the day they all rejected exactly that suggestion.

Conservative policy is to freeze council tax for the first two years of an administration. A popular policy you might think… but not, unfortunately, with London’s Labour councils who all declared they would not participate.

Apparently when the Conservatives suggested it (along with extra funding to help councils manage the freeze) such a freeze would result in “years of misery” as Labour leader’s across the capital second guessed what funding they would get from central government. This year, however, at exactly the same place in the budget setting process, with no promise of cash from the government they can all announce a freeze as a celebration of Labour efficiency.

The only conclusion you can draw is that when it comes to using council tax to buy a few votes for the beleaguered Prime Minister different rules apply.

I live life on the edge. I’m the type of guy you see in a L’Oreal advert, perhaps running along the Thames, then doing something manly, like chopping down a tree or at least doing something wearing a tool-belt.

And I use Facebook (you can even be my friend), which includes applications like ‘How Sexy Am I?’.

Actually, I generally avoid applications on Facebook, largely because I’m averse to clicking OK when asked to approve access to virtually all my information. But I did try with this particular application out of solidarity with Cllr Geoff Courtenay from Uxbridge. The Uxbridge Gazette reports that Cllr Courtenay, a fellow Conservative, has been de-selected by Hillingdon Conservatives after putting the app on his Facebook page. Apparently he displayed “a lack of judgement over inappropriate material being placed [on the] social networking site Facebook.” If there is any good news for Cllr Courtenay it’s that the paper later reveals that, in true Facebook style, there is a group demanding he be un-de-selected.

Despite my general cynicism about the role sites like Facebook and Twitter play in politics and local government stories like this depress me. I know the articles in the might not tell the whole story. And I know there may well be an unwritten subtext to the de-selection. But it looks bad for two reasons.

First, if you take it at face value we are saying that we, as a party, don’t really understand sites like Facebook, where applications like this are not that unusual and not meant to be taken seriously. If you have a Facebook account you understand that, and to see the ‘inappropriate material’ you not only need to have an account but be Cllr Courtenay’s friend. Taking it further, we are saying that we don’t expect our candidates to be human. We expect them to operate in a humourless void, in which defects like personality or character should be stamped out.

Second, if you view it as a smoke screen, then it gives the appearance that we are unprofessional. We’re using an excuse (and I think a fairly flimsy one) as cover for a decision we want to take for other reasons. Candidate selections and de-selections are a fact of life for anyone involved in politics – in just the same was as we win or lose elections, we need to convince our party that we’re fit for the job. There is nothing wrong with de-selections, just as there’s nothing wrong in people losing jobs or failing at job interviews. But if we are to be a professional party (and generally, we are) we need to act in a professional manner – and that includes honesty in the feedback rather than using convenient smokescreens.

And if you were wondering how sexy I am, I’m afraid you will be disappointed. I tried installing the application but just get a message that “there are still a few bugs on Facebook and the makers of How Sexy Am I? are trying to sort them out.” But every cloud has a silver lining, because while my sexiness will – tragically – remain a mystery, at least I don’t have to fear a de-selection.

Union Jack at WandsworthThe Union Jack now flies over Wandsworth Town Hall every day.  Not the greatest picture, but I’m rather pleased with the result from a phone camera.

The council had previously taken a ‘high days and holidays’ approach to flag flying, but recently changed this to keeping the Union Jack flying every day and to be replaced with special flags as required (e.g. the Armed Forces Day flag, or the council flag on full council days).  I’m pleased with the decision.  Flag flying is a small thing, but makes an enormous difference – there’s certainly something uplifting about seeing the two flags flying when you are coming down East Hill.

Meeting the Chamber of Commerce
The Leader and I had one of our regular meetings with the Chamber of Commerce this week. The meetings serve a ‘keeping in touch’ purpose as much an anything, and allow both sides to raise issues, concerns or just share information. Of course, one of the key topics over recent months has been the recession and the impact it is having. While the mood hasn’t changed dramatically I think it can now be best described as a ‘weary optimism’ – there’s still a feeling that it’s hard, and will continue to be hard, but a sense that we can weather the storm fairly well – along with the knowledge that there are a lot of bright lights on the horizon in Wandsworth.

Regeneration and Community Safety OSC
I attended the Regeneration and Community Safety Overview and Scrutiny Committee last night. I have to say these meetings are usually fun, but last night’s was a little flat. While the items on the agenda were all interesting and useful, they weren’t the type to spark off some of the debates and discussions that can make council meetings incredibly interesting.

Perhaps the closest we came to a disagreement was over the US Embassy. Tony Belton (who is also the Labour leader) suggested the embassy’s move to Wandsworth might not be unalloyed good news. His argument was that the security cordon might leave an isolated and sterile building, while little or no employment would be created because staff would move from Grosvenor Square. While he was putting a potential point of view – I think he was acting more as a devil’s advocate than putting across his own views – I would not claim the arguments are entirely without merit, but there are huge positives to the embassy move.

Employment benefits may not be immediate, but embassies everywhere employ a lot of local staff – and as current US Embassy staff retire and resign they will need to be replaced. There are also indirect benefits, from the businesses that will develop nearby to serve the staff there (cafes and even shops) to the people who will now move to Wandsworth in order to be closer to the embassy. Perhaps more important is how it will serve as a catalyst to kick start the development of the area.

You can’t put a value on is the kudos such a development brings. While a large parcel of industrial land in Battersea may be attractive, I think that providing the home to one of the United States premier embassies, makes makes it even more attractive – it proves that it is a viable destination and base for investment, and highlights the area’s potential as an international centre. While it might bring some disadvantages, I think these will be massively outweighed by the advantages.

Anne Robinson.

Fairly simple. I very much doubt I would have been able to vote for Anne Robinson if she’d been the Conservative candidate for London Mayor last year, as she claims she was asked. Now, of course, I’ve no idea what conversation took place, but there’s being asked and being asked. There can be few men who haven’t – at the wrong end of an evening in the pub – been suggested as a potential Prime Minister after outlining their schemes to solve all the country’s ills. Then again, most men don’t then do an interview with The Independent and throw in such comments to get a bit of publicity for their new chat show.

What worries me is that a supposedly reputable paper takes such an interview, then creates an article and an editorial out of it without really questioning it. Have we really become so obsessed with celebrity? That such comments are seen as perfectly reasonable, that celebrity is the prime qualification for political office?

Gordon Brown, after all, promised an end to the Blairite obsession with celebrity – then invited just as many D-listers as would accept to Downing Street. And this is perhaps the problem with Mayoral systems, that we end up considering not the candidates with the best executive experience, or the best policy ideas, but the candidate with the best name recognition.

[As an aside, if you do a Google image search for ‘Anne Robinson’ virtually every result is from the Daily Mail – which says something, though I’m not sure what.]

A bus, not entirely unlike the 87
A bus, not entirely unlike the 87

I’m not being entirely fair here, but I want to have a rant (perhaps to vent some tension built up from the various exchanges I’m having with the PFRA).

I’ve been landed with an Unpaid Fair Notice by Transport for London. I got on the 87 at Lavender Hill and my card was dead. Not sure why, it was fine the last time I used it, but nothing registered. I started to get off the bus, assuming I’d have to get a replacement from the local shop, but the driver called me back, dug out a little yellow notepad and proceeded to issue me with the Unpaid Fare Notice to cover the £1 pre-pay fare. My apologies to those passengers delayed while this happened.

At first I was rather impressed, like most people I’ve seen passengers waved on when they had a failed card or the reader was broken and assumed that at least some of them were getting to travel for free (I’m not sure why but people abusing public transport is one my real bêtes noir). I now had a yellow slip of proof that TfL do care about revenue protection – a yellow slip telling me that I had five days to pay or face a penalty charge notice being issued.

But as I come to pay, I’ve started to realise: I’m ripping myself off.

By paying the fare now (either by cheque or by phone with a credit card) I will be costing myself even more money. This isn’t an issue about the time, or about the cost of postage, it’s about the fact that I know it costs more than the £1 they will get to process the cheque or credit card payment. I know this because I used to work within TfL, but actually it’s fairly common sense – from receiving the letter in the post room to paying the cheque in it takes someone, somewhere, time. And while a credit card would be quicker, there’s always a commission taken out by the credit card company.

And of course this all this excludes the cost of issuing and monitoring the unpaid fare.

And who will pay this extra processing cost? Well, passengers like you and me. So I’m paying the fare. Then, somewhere down the line, I’ll be paying over some money which will track through the system and, eventually, defray the costs of processing my cheque.

Yes, I know that if they didn’t do this then everyone would hop on with a broken card and travel for free. But that seems to be what usually happens anyway. Even if drivers started wielding the yellow book more often, the experienced failed Oystercard blagger will have a false name and address ready. Or even just say the card is a Travelcard. Actually, even the inexperienced Travelcard blagger will know it now (if they’ve read this).

It seems to me that this is a case where (perhaps) no-one has actually thought about the cost of enforcement.

In the end I opted to pay by cheque, mainly so I could suggest they recoup the processing cost from Croydon Tramlink so I don’t have to pay twice – sorry to Croydon, it’s a terrible blow coming after your lazy journalist swine flu devastation:

Dear Sir or Madam,
Unpaid Fare Notice: UFN 1002489

Please find enclosed a cheque, for £1.00, made payable to Transport for London in respect of the above Unpaid Fare Notice issued at 10.10am on 24 August 2009 when my Oyster card suddenly failed.

I hope the processing cost per cheque isn’t significantly higher than the £1.28 it was when I worked within the TfL family a year ago.

You may have noticed I didn’t simply give a false name and address or pretend my Oyster pre-pay card was actually a Travelcard but accepted the Unpaid Fare Notice. I hope this honesty is rewarded by the processing cost being recouped via fares from a form of transport I don’t use – I’d hate to have to pay twice!  May I suggest Croydon Tramlink?

Kind regards, etc.

(To be a little bit more positive about TfL the station assistant at Pimlico was absolutely fabulous in helping me through the process of getting a replacement Oystercard and I’ve also dropped them a line congratulating him.)

A blog post by Evening Standard journalist Paul Waugh caught my eye, in which Brian Coleman, Conservative Assembly member for Barnet and Camden allegedly refuses to publish his expenses.

Much as I would want to avoid disagreeing with a fellow Conservative, some of his comments are astounding.  For a start the assertion that “Politicians with lower expenses tend to be the politicians who do least work. Those with higher expenses are the ones who do most work” is just plain wrong. Expense claims have nothing to do with work-rate, as a politician (lite) with no expenses I’m offended.

But the most telling comment of all is his belief that he shouldn’t have to hand over the details because “it’s none of the public’s business. They have coped well without knowing this kind of detail for more that 75 years. They are not entitled to drool over our personal lives.”

Perhaps we have managed without knowing before. And no, we aren’t entitled to drool over your personal life. But we are entitled to know how public money is being spent – and that’s what you are doing with your expenses.

No Conservative can believe they have the right to spend public money without public scrutiny. I don’t know what Brian Coleman’s expense claims are like, but I hope he comes to his senses and realises that we tax-payers have a right to know how our money is spent.

thelondonpaperThe good thing about a potential pandemic is that everyone talks about it and wants to read about it.  And the great thing about the internet is that it gives everyone a platform, regardless of whether they have anything of value to say.

And the amazing thing about the traditional media is that they seem to operate on the same basis: people want to know about swine flu, they want disaster, they need tragedy, they want to feed you not only the suffering of others, but the suffering you too might experience.  Facts don’t need to get in the way of that.

So, without even the slightest hint of filtering, of providing analysis, commentary or balance – things you might expect from journalists – the media give us their take on swine flu.  I want to highlight two in particular that I spotted and Tweeted about (here and here).

The first is from the local GuardianClapham patient test for Mexican swine flu .

If you don’t want to follow the link to read it (I wouldn’t recommend it) I will summarise it for you: woman tested for swine flu, probably doesn’t have it.  She’s not been to Mexico, there are no cases in the area, just flu-like symptoms.

I could go to my GP and get tested for bubonic plague.  Chances are that I don’t have it.  Not really sure it’s a great news story and while you and I might know both the flu and the plague stories are pointless, the really important bit is the headline.  It’s a local paper, there’s a big national story that everyone wants to read about and they can give it a local angle: the headline is local paper gold.

The second really annoyed me and was in thelondonpaper yesterday – 4,000 at risk of dying in Croydon if swine flu pandemic strikes.

What? 4,000.  My God.  But there’s more, if you read on you are told you can “find out how your borough would fare in the event of a swine flu outbreak”.

3,517 people would die in Wandsworth.  No, not 3,500… it’s much much worse than that… 3,517.  A horrifyingly accurate statistic.

Some places would fare better.  The City, we are told, would suffer few casualties.

But when you actually read you realise that the article is nothing more than fear-mongering.  They’ve taken tables produced by London Resilience which, very simply, produce numbers based on population, infection rate and fatality rate.  It’s a simple formula:

Population x infection rate x fatality rate = deaths

Basically it assumes a uniform infection and fatality rate.  If you assume the same proportion of people die in each borough then of course more would die in Croydon (population 338,825) than the City of London (population 7,985).  It’s fairly basic maths.  But the journalist obviously didn’t do too well in their maths GCSE because they claim “Croydon residents are at a higher risk of dying from swine flu than any other London borough.”  No.  Just no.  If you assume a uniform distribution across the capital, as the tables and the paper do, everyone is at equal risk.

thelondonpaper even acknowledges the tables were produced before swine flu was even heard of.  So it’s all pointless conjecture anyway, we don’t know what the likely infection rate or fatality rate is.  They are just numbers used for exercises, not numbers produced as predictions for swine flu.

They may as well have plucked the numbers out of thin air, because they would have had as much relevance to a potential swine flu pandemic as the figures they have used.  In fact, so far in the UK the fatality rate is 0, which would mean no-one will die.  The headline should be “Based on available evidence no-one in Croydon will die from swine flu”.  But that doesn’t grab you, does it.

Ironically, using the media to disseminate information is often a key part of emergency planning, but when you get such shoddy sensationalist journalism as thelondonpaper yesterday you have to worry how well they will perform the vital role of informing the public.

It’s not a commonly celebrated day, perhaps because it isn’t generally associated with drinking copious amounts of alcohol, but it’s St George’s Day today.

And finally London is doing something to mark it.

If you can make it, Boris Johnson will be at an event to mark the day in Leadenhall Market (Gracechurch Street, EC3V) at 10.45am.  Alternatively Trafalgar Square will see a free concert celebrating English music this Saturday.

It’s bizarre that, after all England has given the world, we seem keener on celebrating the patron saints of Ireland, Scotland and Wales than we do our own – but hopefully this year’s small start will see a change in that.

James CleverlyJames Cleverly

Congratulations to James Cleverly on his appointment as the Mayor’s new Ambassador for Young People.

In his role as ambassador James will act as champion for young people across London and he is in a unique position to do that – he is on the London Development Agency board, a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, he’s obviously on the Greater London Assembly and has the ear of Boris, who appointed him.

James is largely south-east London based, so I’ve only come across him infrequently, but each time I have met him I’ve been impressed.  He’s a hard-working, dedicated and thoughtful politician.  I have no doubt that he will bring his energy and talent to the role and be a great champion for young people across London on the GLA.